According to Jerome McGann, poetry became desocialised as a result of Kant's definition of the aesthetic experience as wholly and essentially subjective. A consequence for criticism ever since has been that 'poetry's historical and social relations are regarded as peripheral ("extrinsic") concerns.' Coleridge's declaration that a poem proposes 'for its immediate object pleasure not truth', and his particular conception of Imagination as an internal and self-enclosed harmonisation, 'extends and elaborates the Kantian analyses of the aesthetic experience'. McGann favours poets with a more activist or 'illocutionary' conception of their art: Blake rather than Wordsworth, or the Language poets rather than some more traditionalist poets now writing in America. But his overriding concern is to insist on a critical method which recognises that all poems, not just activist ones, are 'social acts' which cannot be understood in separation from the circumstances which attended their composition, publication, reception and subsequent transmission. Bibliography and textual criticism, whose importance to literary studies he has always seen as central rather than peripheral or ancillary, are here again brought into play in a series of eloquent and sophisticated analyses of particular literary texts, though these disciplines are always and properly treated as forming part of a larger historical and biographical matrix. The essays in this book range from the Old Testament to recent American poetry, but the main topics of investigation fall within the Romantic and Early Modern periods.
LRB 16 March 1989 | PDF Download